Cambridge Stories and Tips

Cambridge: A little bit of background

King's College, Cambridge Photo, Cambridge, England

Cambridge (named after the river Cam, which flows through it) was founded in 1209 by students fleeing, along with a few tutors, from Oxford, where a murder had resulted in student uprisings, following which some colleges had been closed. The first college to be founded in Cambridge was Peterhouse , which dates back to 1284. Prior to all this, the town had been an important centre for the Romans and was later a sea port (although it’s actually sixty miles from the sea).

Today, Cambridge has a total of 31 colleges, 28 being co-educational and 3 being women’s colleges. Magdalene College was the last college to change from being men’s-only to co-educational; it did so in the late 1980s, and the men at the college really hated the idea of women joining- the month when women students were allowed was observed as `Black October’, and a regular `Black October’ tie was issued to mark the ill-fated month. Students actually walked around with black arm-bands to mourn the admittance of women.

The university is, of course, the main focus of this pretty, very English town. The departments of the university are spread out all over the town, and students from different colleges pedal their way to their respective departments (students are not allowed to own or use cars; even the members of the royalty use cycles). Colleges and departments, all of them housed in beautiful old buildings, look really as if they belong more in medieval England than in the 21st century- but that’s all part of their charm. The colleges, by the way, have some rather quaint traditions; for instance, a `fellow’ (a senior teacher) at a college may walk on the grass of his or her college only (there are very strict rules regarding the lawns- no student may walk on the grass), but not on that of other colleges. For examinations, students are expected to go formally dressed, though it’s still not as bad as Oxford, where an old pal of ours had to go togged up in a three-piece suit, complete with top hat, to give his exams.

A rather more dubious tradition relates to the 16 pubs which used to line King’s Street once upon a time (now there are only five). All freshmen had to race through each of these 16 pubs, consuming a pint of ale in each. It is said that the record for the fastest sprint through was 19 minutes, though that is as yet unverified. By the end of the race, though, most participants could only crawl back home to their colleges- thus the term `pub crawl’.

The colleges of Cambridge have interesting histories attached to them, too. The first Protestant college, Emmanuel College , listed amongst its students John Harvard (after whom the American university is named). Till today, one Harvard student comes to Cambridge annually on an exchange program to do research, and is accommodated in the rooms which John Harvard occupied.

Jesus College , originally a nunnery, was turned into a college when an official, on a visit to the nunnery, discovered that only two nuns were left- one of whom was very old and the other, as he put it quite discreetly, "was being very naughty". Incidentally, in the good old days, men’s colleges had one problem- the students, usually bachelors, couldn’t be bothered with keeping their rooms clean, or making their beds, so women `bedders’ (similar to chairwomen) were appointed. There were certain necessary qualifications required for the job- you had to be old, married and ugly. There was a committee, too, to vet applicants for the posts. Don’t know if it would be very flattering to get selected!

Sidney Sussex College had, as one of its students, Oliver Cromwell, whose head was later returned to the college and buried in the chapel in 1960.

The largest, and definitely one of the most well-known colleges, is Trinity, which lists among its most illustrious students personages such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Prince Charles, A A Milne and Christopher Robin (incidentally, while we’re on the topic- there’s a lot of Winnie the Pooh memorabilia available in the shops of Cambridge).

Another well-known student of Cambridge was William Pitt the Younger, who introduced income tax (and with that simple little act became the most widely criticized man of all time!)

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